Donald Trump stayed true to himself.
For better and for worse.
After taking the oath of office and becoming the 45th president of the United States, Trump delivered an inaugural address Friday that was direct, stated clearly his vision, and laid out what he was going to accomplish. That was to his credit.
But he once again painted a dystopian vision of the country that was flecked with disturbing and discordant notes, did little to allay the fears of those who are worried about him and what he might do, and did not try to reach out to anyone who opposed him during a grueling campaign. His frequent use of “we” was not a sweeping embrace of “we the people,” but an invocation of “me and those who supported me.”
Trump struck a universal message when he laced into Washington’s political class at the start of his speech. He skewered politicians for prospering while the people they represented were struggling, and he reminded the crowd, “Their victories have not been your victories.” Later, he complained about leaders who talk but never act.
With four living presidents and a cadre of powerful politicians sitting behind him in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, it was a stunning rebuke. But it was completely in tune with a nation disgusted with Washington privilege and power plays. Our country honors the peaceful transfer of power, but in another time and in a different place Trump’s words would have been the soundtrack for a busy guillotine.
Trump also captured the stark financial reality facing many Americans with his depiction of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones . . . ” He knows how to tap into deep veins of bipartisan disgust, and that gives him leverage to get things done.
He mentioned neither Republicans nor Democrats, and his remarks were refreshingly free of ideology.
But Trump’s decision to speak only to his base mirrored his desire to make America small again, to shrink its reach and influence around the world. Protect our borders from the ravages of other countries, he said. Put our own interests first. But bringing jobs back to the Rust Belt doesn’t mean we must isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.
It’s simplistic and it’s naive and it’s terribly risky. Withdrawing from the world stage — with the notable exception Trump made for crushing radical Islamic terrorism — could open doors for superpowers China and Russia that we won’t be able to close later. China, economically, and Russia, militarily, are playing the long game of making incremental increases of influence. It’s no accident that Chinese President Xi Jinping this week became the first Chinese leader to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the leader of the communist nation extolled the virtues of free trade.
The nationalistic view Trump promotes might not only be bad economic strategy, it also has ominous overtones. He says his two simple rules will be to “Buy American and hire American.”
The bedrock of the nation’s new politics is, as he put it, “a total allegiance to the United States of America.” Does that mean allegiance to our leaders? Or to our laws and our ideals? Does that include the right to protest and disagree? From Trump’s own history, that’s not at all clear. He turned patriotism into a foreboding word. And his insistence that all Americans share the “same glorious freedoms” was tone deaf to reality.
Trump was not wrong about what’s been happening to the middle class, nor the need to improve our school systems, lift people from poverty and rebuild our infrastructure. But to call all of that part of “this American carnage” is simply not true. Trump’s conception of burning inner cities and an America overrun with crime and gangs is rooted in the 1970s and 1980s New York City in which he began to make his mark as a developer. That’s not the America he now leads. Nor has our military lost its standing as the world’s strongest.
He was right to note that a nation is not living if it is not striving, but that’s never been America’s problem. And in that, perhaps, lies our greatest disappointment: Trump never spoke Friday about what is right with America, what its strengths are, what it does well, the ingenuity and energy of its people, or the things we have in common. He made a few nods toward unity, but they are appealing only if you buy his dark vision.
He probably did not change minds, nor address the worries of his skeptics. Where the people sought inspiration, they heard about desperation.
But give Trump credit: He provided a scorecard by which to judge him. And he put the bar high: Bring back good jobs. Create great schools and safe neighborhoods. Defend our borders. Rebuild our roads, bridges, airports, tunnels and railways. End the threat of terrorism. Return government to the people.
There is little disagreement with his immediate goals, only concern that he will shred the fabric of our society in the process of trying to achieve them.